The Disciplinary Economy of Open Peer Review

There seems to be widespread skepticism that peer review without anonymity can be both rigorous and fair.

Fiona Godlee, who rehearses some of the main arguments for anonymity, highlights the concern that “the reviewers might tone down their comments, especially if the reviewer were junior and the author eminent and politically powerful.” 1

In two recent conversations about our plans to integrate open peer review into the Public Philosophy Journal, one in New York and one at Michigan State, this concern about the power dynamics of peer review emerged as primary. At Michigan State, the concern was for the junior faculty in Godlee’s example. In New York, however, the issue was couched in terms of bias rather than a reticence for candid critique. For this scholar, the virtue of anonymity is that it protects authors, particularly those who have been traditionally marginalized, from prejudicial treatment, be it conscious or unconscious.

Although the editorial response to these concerns is often to add another level of blindness to the review process–making the reviewer as blind to the author as the author is to the reviewer, it is not clear how effective blind review is in protecting the identity of the scholars involved. 2 Because the Public Philosophy Journal is committed to performing public philosophy as a mode of publication and in developing habits of excellent public scholarship, we will need to develop policies and cultivate practices of open peer review that ensure rigor and fairness simultaneously.

Interestingly, in New York anonymity was evoked to protect the author, while at Michigan State the concern was for the reviewer. However, although the author and reviewer are central to the peer review process, they do not act alone in what might be called the complex disciplinary economy of peer review.

In his article, From Book Censorship to Academic Peer Review, Mario Biagioli claims that for academics, peer review should be recognized as a

… distinctive kind of discipline, that is, as something that is simultaneously repressive, productive, and constitutive of their knowledge. 3

Biagioli goes on to note:

… in academia we find that the roles of the disciplined and the discipliner are often reversed during one’s career … we start out as students (subject to our advisor’s frequent reviews), but then gradually take on the reviewer function ourselves (depending on seniority, prestige, and willingness to allocate time and energy to reviewing, etc.). Peer review, then, may be the ‘degree zero’ of discipline in the sense that, being the condition of possibility for all disciplines of the modern academic system, its subject and object are not and cannot be permanently distinct. 4.

This porous distinction between reviewer and author points to one important dimension of the complex disciplinary economy of peer review. However, the author and reviewer are not simply disciplined and discipliner; they are participants in a disciplinary economy of scholarship that includes, among other actants, the review target (traditionally a text, but in digital contexts it might be an audio or video scholarly artifact), the institutions to which the reviewer and author belong, the knowledge domain area in which they seek to participate, and, of particular concern here, the academic community of the journal itself.

The term “actants” here is designed to extend our understanding of peer review beyond the scope of individual human actors to include, among other things, institutional forces, technological limitations and affordances, and the design of the review process itself. 5

For its part, the phrase “disciplinary economy of scholarship” emphasizes that peer review is both a complex set of disciplinary transactions and is in its own right an important scholarly activity. Our traditional tendencies to focus on and value published products over the processes that bring them about eclipse the important scholarly practices endemic to the peer review process.

If the Public Philosophy Journal is to design a process of peer review that is at once open, rigorous and protective of all involved, we will need to be able to attend to the dynamics of this complex disciplinary economy and cultivate practices of scholarship that are alive to the possibilities at play in the public space of open peer review.

  1. Godlee, Fiona. “The Ethics of Peer Review.” In Ethical Issues in Biomedical Publication, by Anne Hudson Jones and Faith McLellan, 59–84. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000, 75.
  2. Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy (Kindle Locations 648-649). NYU Press short. Kindle Edition, 2011.
  3. Biagioli, Mario. “From Book Censorship to Academic Peer Review.” Emergences: Journal for the Study of Media & Composite Cultures 12, no. 1 (May 2002): 11–45. doi:10.1080/1045722022000003435.
  4. Ibid., 12
  5. Latour appeals to the term in order to extend “the word actor — or actant — to non-human, non-individual entities. See, Latour, Bruno. “On Actor-network Theory: A Few Clarifications.” Soziale Welt 47, no. 4 (January 1, 1996): 369.

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